In the wee hours of this morning, just before bed, I saw a truly ridiculous television show. Made for the History channel, “Ancient Aliens” documents evidence that extra-terrestrials visited Earth in the distant past. Now – I was not there at the time, so I can’t say for sure aliens aren’t there, or even that they aren’t here now. As an old science-fiction fan, I find the notion to be intriguing. As one with a modest amount of education as an Archaeologist, though, I’m going to have to suspend belief until we find some alien technology here, rather than just something they’ve allegedly built. The episode in question “Ancient Engineers, raised a lot of questions about how ancient people were able to lift and carve massive stones which would be difficult or impossible with cutting-edge 21st century technology.

Might it be possible that ancient builders knew something we don’t?

This sort of suggestion, these days, seems almost as bold as suggesting Stargate-style ancient alien gods. The technological, intellectual and moral supremacy of our present age is one of the central myths of our society. Our technologies aren’t just helpful at doing things faster or more efficiently, they’re seen as absolutely necessary to accomplish these tasks. Nearly every argument in the episode relied on this notion – that high-powered building tasks need modern power tools like lasers, diamond-tipped drills and angle grinders.

Could humans in ancient times, lacking electricity, air compressors and diesel generators still work and move stone? Of course they could. It happened all over the world. And though only a few intensely studied societies built giant monuments and vast stone cities, nearly every society could work stone to some degree, with the earliest examples dating back over half a million years before Babylon. That’s ten times as long as we’ve been using fire, and well into times where our brains were far smaller and bodies more apelike (if you believe that kind of thing…).

You might think that as a modern, educated human, pressure-flaking an Oldowan-era handaxe would be dead easy. Go try it. West Hamilton and Ancaster have plenty of chert. You’ll come away with an entirely new respect for our ancestors. Many archaeologists try, and few succeed. If you want to find someone who can do it (rather than just identifying them), you’re likely better off heading to a native reserve. Now, for your next project, carve a one metre cube out of granite with hand tools….sound impossible? Not at all – you might even have most of what you need at hand, you just don’t know how, and neither do I. But I could offer a few suggestions…

Perfect finishing has never been about power, but rather a very old and simple technology: abrasives. Before dremel bits and sandpaper, people had to make do with sand. Even today, many ‘stone aged’ people are on par with some of our best geologists when it comes to identifying rocks. They had to be – it was and is every bit as essential to their survival as the stock market is to a Goldman Sachs executive. Some kinds of sand are very hard and sharp (like silica, which we melt into glass). When rubbed into a softer stone they’ll grind the surface right off. Applied in one spot, by a spinning stick, they’ll bore into the surface. And if you work up through finer sands, you can polish the stone to a perfect, glass-like shine. I had to laugh watching Ancient Aliens, when, after talking at length about how carving the Sphinx would be “impossible” without modern machining, they showed a very brief clip of ancient tools. Among the axes and chisels was what looked like a fire-drill – perfect for this task.

This sort of work was unbelievably slow-going, but there isn’t much evidence that these monuments went up overnight. Most took centuries and enormous slave or corvee (tax) labour forces. The point was to demonstrate the awe-inspiring power of the rulers of the time, so it’s no surprise that this kind of monumental architecture is found only in the most centralized societies with the most powerful rulers. When large numbers of people spend decades at a time at these tasks, they’ll find simple ways to improve. The complex math displayed often has very humble roots. How do you build a perfect hemispherical dome? Nail one end of a string to the ground, and use it like a compass to trace a circle in three dimensions. How do you keep everything perfectly straight in a building site miles wide? The same way sailors travel in a straight line for weeks at a time on the open ocean – with the sky. Is it any surprise, then, that these sites tend to be laid out in perfect alignment with stars and constellations, or that these societies were so focused on astronomy?

People focused on more recent building styles, a century or two old instead of millenia, know all too well how skills have vanished over the years. This is especially true of stoneworking, a subject which has come up frequently with discussions of heritage buildings over at Raise the Hammer. Other crafts have suffered as well – I spent a good deal of time this past weekend at country antique fairs looking for old woodworking tools, because it’s hard to find anything that compares at most modern hardware stores. While we may have beefy motors with lots of nifty disposable bits, the quality of basic tools like chisels has dropped enormously. Why? They used better steel, which stayed sharp much longer and far more reliably. The same could be said for leatherworking tools, or even much of the furniture one can find at these fairs. Slow, methodical work with hand tools can produce stunning results, often just as easily as with power tools, but only if you know how to use them.

It’s often said, and Ancient Aliens often reminds us, that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If ancient Egyptians saw one of our cars, planes or computers, they might believe they were the work of the Gods. Is the reverse now becoming true? Are we now so “advanced”, and so utterly wrapped up in our own technology that any sufficiently “primitive” technology is indistinguishable from magic to us? Are we so amazed by laser levels that we’ve forgotten about the existence of plumb bobs? What would this mean if someday the power didn’t flow easily from outlets in the wall, or Home Depot closed its doors?

Any real craftsperson will tell you that it’s not just the tools. Quality work is all about method and technique – proper jigs, careful measuring and plenty of patience. Power helps, but it isn’t necessary. When we forget that it was possible to do these things with very simple tools, we forget that life is possible outside of complex industrial economies like our own. Once that happens, it becomes very difficult to criticize our system or imagine alternatives. Capitalism and industrialism become the source of all food, water, housing and medicine – a new mechanical and electronic ecosystem. This is the basis for all totalitarian societies, old and new. It’s also tremendously dangerous.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond examines the end of many societies, modern and ancient. As most archaeologists know, these collapses tended to be relatively sudden, occur right after a peak in population and resource use, and present no single, glaring “cause”. Diamond suggests that this wasn’t just about mismanagement of resources (which surely played a role), but also about the changing nature of skills in the new growing population centres. All it takes is two generations for skills like hunting to vanish – when the grandparents pass away, nobody’s left to teach them. As these cities grew, and knowledge of how to survive outside of them was replaced by knowledge of how to survive inside. People gave up hunting and gathering in favour of commerce or building giant monuments for kings. When their limited technology could no longer handle the strain on the environment, there was nothing left to do but run.

They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Does our rampant disregard for traditional skills point toward the same kind of fate suffered by Babylon, the Anasazi or Classic-Era Maya? Our (mis)use of resources like land, water and timber certainly points in the same direction, as do our increasingly out-of-touch ruling classes. There’s no question that the Egyptians or Aztecs possessed some of the most advanced technology of the ancient world, but that didn’t ensure the survival of their empires. Will ours be any different? Whatever role aliens played then (or now), there’s an undeniable role for human avarice, ambition and hubris. In those areas, we’ve seen remarkably little progress.